SEFFNER, Fla. - When a group of Hillsborough County students noticed non-native English speaking classmates struggling to pass a state-required English language exam, they went looking for ways to level the playing field.
They've done their research and written a bill. Now they're headed to Tallahassee in hopes of changing the law.
As Armwood High School senior Maria Medina looks toward college, she can't help worry about a fellow classmate being left behind.
"She's amazing, she's really smart, she has a 4.0 GPA," Medina said.
The girl recently transferred from Cuba. Her credits transferred, too. But, one thing that could stop the student from graduating is failing a state reading exam due to a language barrier.
"Despite her taking engineering math level where she was, she might have to take her certificate of completion, call it a day, if she doesn't pass her FSA," Medina worried.
"High school kids aren't going to graduate because they don't comprehend the English language," added her classmate, Madison Harvey.
Stories like hers got students brainstorming in the school's Ought To Be A Law program. Each year, they choose a problem issue, research a solution, and create a bill to present to state lawmakers.
Most recently, they've crafted a bill that would exempt English Language Learners (ELLs) who enter state high schools from the graduation requirement of the 10th grade English Language Arts Exam.
"If you can't comprehend a test then it's not really testing what you know. It's not testing anything to be honest," said senior Haley Manigold.
"Our ELLs have been kind of on the back burner for about 20 years in the state of Florida," said Civics teacher and club sponsor, Tony Pirotta.
Pirotta has witnessed the problems firsthand in the classroom.
"It's not that they're not intelligent enough, it's not that they're not capable," Pirotta said. "It's that they don't understand because they haven't reached that level of English proficiency yet."
The students already have bipartisan support from Democratic Representative Susan Valdes and Republican Senator Tom Lee, both sponsoring bills.
"We're not giving them a free pass at all," Harvey said. "They still have to take the test to show the progress they are learning. They just don't have to pass to have a high school diploma."
The Ought To Be A Law group has a track record. Over the years, students have successfully passed laws supporting homeless youth, toughening penalties for teachers guilty of sex offenses against students, and eliminating taxes on feminine hygiene products.
"You're never too young to start making change in the community and this club proves that," Medina said.
The students are finalizing their talking points and preparing counter-arguments for any opposition they may face along the way. Next week, they hope to the make the trip to Tallahassee to address lawmakers.